By far the most compelling aspect of Triple Frontier is its constipated development which dates all the way back to 2010. It was supposed to be a vehicle for Kathryn Bigelow to follow up her Oscar victory with The Hurt Locker, composed together with her loyal habitue Mark Boal. However, the film got stuck in development hell for nearly eight years and after a whole host of high-profile names paraded through its credit roll only to drop off eventually, the film saw the light of day in 2019; only because Netflix got involved. And it sure feels like a movie that wasn’t meant to be.
Interestingly enough, J.C Chandor at some point found himself helming the project (presumably after Bigelow called it quits to focus on what later became Detroit), which should have been a big deal. After all, he came off the heels of a trio of rather successful and critically-appreciated features (Margin Call, All Is Lost, A Most Violent Year), which invariably carried some kind of expectation into the film. However, if you asked me what kind of movie I would expect having learned J.C. Chandor was signed on to direct a Mark Boal script that Kathryn Bigelow didn’t want to stick around to direct, I would probably shrug and tell you I had no clue. That’s because even though I have seen all of his previous directorial exploits – some multiple times – I don’t think I can extract an associative bond connecting these films in aesthetic terms. They are all competently made and extremely watchable, but at least in my eyes the connective tissue keeping them together is found on the plane of screenwriting, as opposed to visual style.
Therefore, I approached Triple Frontier with a mixture of curiosity and calculated hesitation as I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from a project that not only had its fair share of grief surrounding its production, but most importantly wasn’t organically traceable to the mind of J.C. Chandor who had only directed his own original scripts thus far. And let’s just agree that this film is at best terribly uneven and at worst almost completely lacking personality.
Boiled to bare essentials, Triple Frontier functions as a distant progeny of John Huston’s The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre married more distinctly to a men-on-a-mission archetype keeping its narrative backbone upright. Theoretically, there is absolutely nothing wrong about this idea. The devil, however, lies in the details. Because J.C. Chandor does not boast an immediately recognizable directorial aesthetic and because he inherited a script that wasn’t organically his, the film flip-flops stylistically throughout its runtime. In a way, it feels as though Chandor wasn’t sure what tone he was after, which indicates a possibility he was slightly out of his element. Thus, it begins tonally reminiscent of Denis Villenueve’s Sicario before latching onto a procedural spirit of Zero Dark Thirty (likely an implicit vestige of Bigelow’s involvement left behind in the script on some subliminal level) and eventually settling much closer to John Huston.
Quite frankly, this makes the entire experience of watching the film seem at the very least bizarre. The story has everything going for it: a great cast of characters with interesting chemistry, a familiar template, a compelling procedural element involving planning and executing an elaborate heist, and a topical politically-charged undertone potentially allowing the entire narrative to be interpreted as an allegorical takedown of American foreign policy. Unfortunately, because the story is structured in such a way where the key dramatic set piece – the procedural heist operation reminiscent tonally of the immensely visceral raid in Zero Dark Thirty – is placed around the halfway point of the film, what follows simply cannot come close in terms of sheer suspense generation. It just isn’t as interesting to follow Oscar Isaac, Ben Affleck and the rest of the gang as they are making their way out of South America with insane amounts of gold, especially because they are scarcely under threat.
I suppose this is a knock-on effect of a cardinal flaw of the script. Instead of a theoretically more exhilarating yet familiar alternative of the narrative turning into a massive chase with the (anti)heroes trying to make their way through the mountains with their gold and slowly coming to terms with the fact they might have to abandon it to survive, all the while the villains are closing in on them, the story slows down to accommodate a different kind of discussion. Little by little, the film morphs into something more profoundly political and charged. Don’t get me wrong, it is an interesting conversation to have and something tells me this is why Chandor was drawn to this project in the first place, but its introduction comes at a price. Because the film starts more openly ruminating on the impact of American meddling in other people’s affairs, it can no longer sustain the peak levels of adrenaline it achieved with its central heist sequence.
Warts and all, I am prepared to defend Triple Frontier from anyone who tries to call it a failure; it isn’t one. It’s a dense thriller rooted in genre familiarity which also tries to say something of value. And even though it doesn’t necessarily succeed on all fronts, it is an interesting specimen nonetheless. Having said that, I don’t think J.C. Chandor feels at home with this kind of filmmaking or that he has a good enough idea as to how to internalize such a set piece-driven narrative. I honestly believe he is more at home with smaller-scale projects where he can successfully sketch out compelling characters and smuggle relevant opinion between the lines of dialogue without sacrificing even a shred of entertainment value of the end product.